Monday, June 29, 2009

Where Sleep Deprivation Will Take the Mind

I'm an avid fan of The Comics Curmudgeon, a blog that lampoons and points out the countless irregularities and outlandish plots of newspaper comic strips. Let's admit it: Some of these comics have been around since the prohibition era and we all respect them and the tireless authors to an extent, but very few of them are any good. Calvin and Hobbes was one of the shining beacons, Doonsbury has always garnered my respect, early Dilbert spoke to that age of corporate excess while The Boondocks spoke to an awakening of activism during the Unmentionable Years. The rest are zombie husks, hopelessly outmoded or just plain unreadable dreck.

So anyways, Maia and I went to a birthday party in Nakatsu on Saturday night for our friend Kate and stayed out pretty far past our bedtime. Kate let us crash at her apartment, but we brought only the bare minimum bedding, which was little protection against the concrete floor and zero protection against the persistent hum of traffic whizzing by just outside the window. This may not have been quite so debilitating if Maia hadn't wanted to wake up at 7:30 to get to aikido practice in Amagase (her practice days are dwindling after all) and I hadn't wanted to meet my friend, Mayumi, for lunch in Oita City at 11:30. Oh, and I forgot to mention I was up until 3:00AM on Friday night finalizing my resume and cover letter for an editorial post at the Public Library of Science. (Wish me luck on that when their applicant submission period ends July 10.)

So we were burning our candles at both ends when Sunday night rolls around and one of us brought up the subject of the Barney Google and Snuffy Smith strip, the strip that founded the term "heeby-jeeby" and has been continuously running since 19-fucking-19! How many other strips were that old, we thought. I knew Blondie had been pretty aged as well, and the conversation turned from pitifully educated inbred hicks to the bumbling sandwich devouring demon, Dagwood Bumstead. Now Blondie's been around since 1930 meaning that if Murat Bernard Young kept his comic topical, and obeyed the normal laws of time and space, then the Bumsteads would have lived through WWII, but have you ever seen propaganda strips or posters of Dagwood punching Mussolini, or running a comically illustrated Hitler through with a bayonet? We all know that DC comic characters were enlisted/pimped out in the ideological war against the Empire of Japan and the Third Reich, but what of Dagwood, a man seemingly of able mind and body to storm the beaches of Normandy? So the mind wanders to the land of What If...

--December 21, 1944, Bastogne, The Ardennes--
The 5th Panzer Army's siege of the Belgian hamlet of Bastogne has begun, and Dagwood is stuck within it's confines of crumbling stone architecture and bomb-pitted streets. He'd seen so many of his division mates fall to machine gun fire and pulled under the oncoming treads of German rolling steel that he doesn't think he can ever look at a caterpillar tractor, or any mechanized farm machinery for that matter, the same again. He can hear the dull, mechanical sound of those grinding treads as they circle the city, just as a pack of jackals circle prey looking for an opening. Or waiting for friends.

It's Monday night, Dagwood's company's turn for watch. They'd been under attack for the past thirty-six hours almost continuously and the Germans had nearly overrun the southeast artillery position only that afternoon, following their narrow defeat with surrender terms. Word was going around among the men of the brigadier general's planned response to the offer that would be relayed in the morning: "Nuts!"

They were all going to die, it was just a matter of time, Dagwood thought.

Herb Woodley, the Bumstead's ever-present neighbor, served together with Dagwood in the same company and shared Bumstead's bleak outlook on the coming decisive battle. He appeared at his post late yet bearing an armful of stale Belgian bread, the last of the dwindling loaves in town which he'd had to shank a feeble, malnourished teenage boy for not twenty minutes before. He'd be tried as a war criminal if anybody ever found out, but he couldn't really give a damn at this juncture.

Herb handed Dagwood a loaf, hesitating a moment during the hand-off as if trying to communicate to his friend without words exactly what he went through to procure this bounty--this blood bread. The former construction company office drone couldn't have noticed less, for he was too busy clutching his walnut-stocked 1917 Enfield, pointing it's muzzle towards the inky forest. He cradled it closer and more firmly then he'd ever held Blondie, and as far as he was concerned this was his wife and lover now. Dagwood and Herb had been speaking in hushed tones of dark sentiments earlier during a lull in the fighting and they were both convinced Blondie and Tootsie were cheating on them back home. Nothing would ever be the same for them on the real home front or the one in their minds.

There's that old saying, how does it go..."focus on the tree and you'll miss the forest." For Dagwood that literally was the case tonight, for as he focused on the distant treeline he didn't take notice of the advancing German commando team until their opening salvo of fire had deafened him and sent him firing round after round randomly at shadows and what he thought were muzzle flashes, though they could very well have been friendly tracers striking cedar. Herb, a coward ever since his traumatizing experience with strikebreakers in Chicago a decade earlier, jumped a foot in the air and dove for cover as soon as gravity forgave his stupidity. There were bread and bullets everywhere.

"Remember your training" Herb thought as he crawled his way towards Dagwood's position of relative safety from the dead soldier's foxhole he had temporarily scavenged. Dagwood was mostly too busy firing and reloading, firing and reloading to pay much attention to his friend. Herb had always been good to and supportive of Dagwood, but secretly the former son of a rich industrialist had never quite escaped his pedigree and looked down on the suburbanite as commoner riff-raff, and besides, this was battle--there's only Number One to look out for in the end. However, he couldn't ignore the sniveling little coward much longer, not after a Kraut commando leaped from behind a hedge to stick Herb with his knife like a pig. Herb put up as good a struggle as his quivering body would allow and, impressively, even managed to pull the cord from one of the type-24 "potato masher" grenades hanging in a bundle of three, like garlic, off the German's belt.

The explosion was fantastic, like a hundred July 4 county fair firework displays going off at once right in front of your face. Dagwood's face. He was thrown to the ground, into a pile of three filthy loaves of the scattered Belgian bread and several hefty chunk of what was left of Herb and the German, where he lost recollection of the following several hours.


The Germans were pushed back by a close-range artillery barrage, but Dagwood never recalled what exactly happened for the rest of the night. The doctors told him later he had what was called disassociative amnesia, a common condition for soldiers after traumatic events in battle. They also told him that when they found him Dagwood was halfway through a two-foot-tall sandwich made from stale Belgian bread and some unidentified meat. How or why the young corporal would stash so much meat into a combat operation of that magnitude was the talk of the trauma ward for several days after that, but Dagwood wasn't feeling particularly forthcoming with that bit of info.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's Very Real Now

My trip to Ota Elementary School today marked the second fare-thee-well ceremony for me this week and the feeling that my time here is coming to a close is quite palpable now. The first came from Hiju JHS on Monday where all seven students played a taiko show just for me (there was literally one chair in the hall) and it was fairly emotional. A cacophany of huge drums beating away at their own "Four Seasons of Hiju" composition--what a way to be sent off.

They're bittersweet affairs, leaving behind Hiju and Ota, but then again my connection to these two schools have been almost entirely positive. With Hiju the students have always been fairly enthusiastic about all their subjects, not just English, and never cause trouble for the educators, while Ota was my first elementary school, my most frequently visited and having hands down the most well-behaved and likable student body. On the other hand, these are waypoints on the path to (hopefully) greener pastures back in SF or wherever I end up. I just wasn't built for this country lifestyle, I crave the diversity of a more populated region. I decided Oita City or Beppu would have done nicely. I've heard the students in Beppu are Satan's own reprehensible offspring, but at least I could have joined a cycling club/less insanely strict kendo club/art class/cooking class/poker night/gone to movies/voluneered for meaningful things/moonlighted as a part-time bartender in a seedy snack/sung at good karaoke boxes/supported the local football team, Trinita/become a video arcade god/organize mass public pranks/etc. Oh, and see my Japanese friends: I actually have more friends in Oita, sixty kilometers away, than I do on my doorstep in Kusu. Madness.

Of course I can complain all I want and it won't change a thing. Besides, who would I be if circumstances were different? Had I not lived in Kusu would I have the opportunity to ride and be as healthy as I am now? Would I have known Chizuru, Luchie and Eriko in Hita? Would I have met Maia? Would I want to be a person who never lived that life?


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

And They Say Cults Have No Sense of Humor (Oh, the Bouncing!)

Recently Maia and I have been passing Haruki Murakami's non-fictional Underground back and forth like a before-bed bong, breathing in accounts from victims of the infamous Aum Shinrikyo 1995 Tokyo Subway sarin nerve gas attack. I highly recommend this book on a number of levels as it's a fascinating window into a mixed-up time in Japan that was and, in some cases, still is. The victim accounts are well worth the modest price of this text, however it's towards the rear of the book, where Murakami tracks down existing and former members of the cult, when things go from fascinating to I-can't-stop-turning-the-pages-if-I-tried status.

In one of the interviews with a former Aum member the subject states to Murakami that he took part in the production of an anime that was to be shown to prospective initiates illustrating the supernatural powers of Shoko Asahara, founder and absolute leader of Aum, plus mastermind behind the gas attack. I wondered (and the subject does too) why Asahara didn't just demonstrate his amazing powers to the congregation or be filmed using them to show to everyone instead of making an anime, but of course we all know the reason for that. By the subject's own admission the final product was pure rubbish.

Well, if there's even a slight possibility of a piece of campy, throw-away footage of anything existing out there then Maia just has to look for it...and usually find it. This is yet another example of how many luxuries the internet affords we humble meat popsicles these days. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Aum promotional anime. How these goofballs ever amassed enough know how to create sarin is beyond me.

The bouncing at 0:36 is...amazing.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

"I Should Blog About This..." just about the most common single phrase I use these days. However, as you can tell by the scarcity of blog posts recently, I rarely do blog about this or that. My reasoning is sound though: I don't want to bore you with the insipid happenings and in-jokes of my daily life. I think the Acid Tomato Incident is about as mundane as I'll ever want to write about.

This all comes about because I just recapped in detail the midnight rumblings of my stomach to Maia, then, for some reason, said "I should blog about this." Madness. Why would I want to blog about that? That's something for the Twitter twits, right along with what you're getting on your deli sandwich and how bad your athelete's foot itches, and I hate that kind of crap. So you're not going to hear about my stomach perturbations or the Japanese word I made up the other day (jisasu, meaning "self-stabbing", created after I stabbed myself with the corner of a moving box) or Mafia Space Plants. You just don't want to go down that dark path.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Attack of the pH-Imbalanced Tomatoes

We learned a valuable lesson this week: Don't buy tomatoes in Japan.
Still feeling a bit high after making a delicious pasta sauce from perfect tomatoes courtesy of Kusu Agricultural High School I tried to replicate the success with some store-bought ones thinking "well, how different could they be?" See, people, this is why I hate tomatoes so much (as well as several other reasons having to do with their resemblance to hearts). After cutting four of them and heating them on the stove they turned to goo and I started to add spices. So far so good. Well, I went to taste test it and...DEAR GOD! It was like tasting the unholy cocktail of vomit and turpentine! Thank goodness I didn't get in too far with the spices and didn't add any veggies to it yet. An alternate dinner was whipped up and all were happy. Well, all except my pan. When I washed it out a few days later I discovered that the toxic tomatoes had stripped the enamel or whatever off the inner surface of my wok! Unbelievable!

These tomatoes were like Alien blood. I'm surprised it didn't burn a hole through the pan, stove, apartment floor and ground where it would now slowly be making it's way towards the core.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

North of the Border (Down Ajimu Way)

I almost completely forgot to make a few comments about my little outing into Yabakei/Innai/Ajimu (apart from the bit about the kindly manju man) and I suppose it wasn't the most eventful day, but a couple notable moments cropped up along the way. After the manju we headed back to the scene of one of Maia and my early crimes, namely the temple of Rakanji. Strangely enough, while browsing around the lower grounds I spotted a sparrow or finch or something with his head stuck in the gap of a power pole guy line plastic protective wrapping. I'd bet to a bird the wrapping looks to be a perfect nesting location, but it turned out to be made of a slippery plastic which the bird no doubt couldn't grip and fell into. We opened the gap and let it go, but discovered a grisly secret--this was by far not the first time a similar event had occurred judging by the amount of bird skeletons in there.

This time around at the temple, perhaps reflecting our more health-conscious attitudes, instead of taking the miniature ski lift we scaled a really not-so-difficult slope to the cliff grotto housing both parts of the temple. Unable to resist the allure, same as last time, we purchased a spoon and left our incomprehensible mark on the temple...which they probably removed immediately after (our previous one was gone too and, upon closer inspection, there's a notice about placing spoons that are not specifically prayers).

Why ever did we take the ski lift up in the first place when there's this wonderful gate and a half-kilometer Stairmaster to deliver us to spoon n' cave heaven?

From Rakanji it's a half hour drive over twisty, narrow mountain roads to Innai and our next destination, a quaint little, uh, restaurant called Hayashinchi. The reason I hesitate in calling it a restaurant properly is because of both the atmosphere and the name—the place is indistinguishable from a mountain family home, replete with dog running around the grounds, plus the name means simply “Hayashi's House”. But hey, they had tofu cuisine so we couldn't resist. Actually, I ordered a local mountain stream fish and Maia got what was essentially a tofu egg roll and both were excellent. Another local eatery to hit up again before legging it. There was one issue with the place though—the kids. Being somebody's house, the owner's kids were home and loud as hell, but worse than that is the fact that they were visibly abusing their dog. Hitting him, running their bike into him and getting him tangled in rope was their idea of play and I seethed while watching it. After lunch the two of us approached the dog and found it to be playful and wanting a lot of affection. Whoever planted that seed in the mass consciousness of children's innocence was a charlatan.

If you can comprehend this spoon then you need more help than we.

We sort of meandered down the mountain and over some hills to the town of Ajimu, an area of the prefecture known for making wine. I've had this wine before and let me tell you, they may be known for making it, but that doesn't mean it's any good. I shudder at the thought of it sluicing down my gullet. The town is nicer and more expansive than I had previously believed and the rolling hills surrounding it are also quite pleasant, reminding me that I need to get the bike down here and tackle some of the up-and-down roller coaster terrain. Well outside the town, most of the way to Beppu even, I spotted a tiny, intriguing wooden sign off on the right: with an arrow pointing right it said “Trappist”. At first I thought about beer, and who knows, maybe there was a mountaintop brewery in Ajimu. Stranger things have happened in Japan, that's for sure. As we wound up and up and up, past the evil eyes of some very wary farmers, just as Maia's bladder was about to explode, we came upon...a Trappist Monastery. Whoa. Turns out this is one of three such monasteries in Japan and here it is smack dab in Oita. No monks were around to talk to, unfortunately, but had there been I think the conversation would have began and ended with “Where is your bathroom?”


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Grass Is Greener North of the Border

It's been a while since I wrote about Yabakei, the gorgeous little town just across Kusu's northern border that is bountiful in hot springs and country town warmth, and I suppose there isn't much that's changed about the town between last time and this, yet the place keeps drawing me in and showing me what's right with Japan. While passing through this last Saturday for a day of exploration around the towns of Innai and Ajimu, Maia and I stopped at our favorite inaka sweets shop for a handful of country manju. These are little cake-like items made of different types of dough (sakura, yomogi, citron, soda, etc.) and containing a core of either smooth or chunky anko, the sweet red bean paste you either love or love to hate. This day the normal shopkeeper—or anybody for that matter—was nowhere to be found and we craned our necks around confused until a man who looked to be in his seventies or eighties came hobbling across the street towards us. I suppose our normal dealer was off for the day and dad was taking over in his stead.

Right about now the old man, as do many from the generation that still remembers the war and/or its aftermath, should have been treating us in one of three ways: Quiet passive aggression; proclamations of “America daiichi (number one)!”; or, upon hearing us order in Japanese, doling out a canned, patronizing statement about how great at Japanese we are and asking us where we're from. I'm so tired of each of the above. This man was different though. He spoke to us like human beings, didn't freak at the fact that we like these traditional Japanese treats and came around the front of the store to explain the tourism events poster hanging out front.

Why can't there be more well-adjusted individuals in Japan like this man, who treat people like people no matter the color of their skin or nation of origin? He's just gained himself some customers for life.